Picture: Supplied via Fast Company
Picture: Supplied via Fast Company

This city appointed a Chief Heat Officer in a bid to combat global warming

By Fast Company Contributor Time of article published Jun 19, 2021

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In an effort to raise awareness and put into place concrete actions on local levels to combat heat’s effect on human health and economies, cities around the world are appointing chief heat officers, who’ll also share best practices with other cities in their regions.

Impacts of extreme heat on cities have ranged from disruptive to devastating in recent years. In 2017, planes in the US city of Phoenix couldn’t physically take off in 48-degree Celsius heat. In Washington, D.C., and in London, metro and tram tracks have melted. And during the pandemic, as people spent more time outside, even public health took a hit, as COVID-19 testing was shut down in areas of D.C. and New Jersey because the heat was too dangerous for those lining up in the sun.

While many are aware of heat risks, they’re perhaps not taken as seriously as more visible climate disasters like hurricanes and floods, leading many experts to call heat the “silent killer.” A 2020 study suggests that heat contributes to the deaths of 5600 people every year. Data on such deaths is sparse, since they’re often attributed to other conditions, but severe heatstroke can lead to coma or even death. In an effort to raise awareness and put into place concrete actions on local levels to combat heat’s effect on human health and economies, three US cities are appointing chief heat officers, who’ll also share best practices with other cities in their regions.

Miami was an apt place to start: Known for its vulnerability to sea-level rise, the coastal city broke its own heat records last year, reaching a June high of 37 degrees Celsius, the hottest ever for that month. “It’s killing more people than any other climate-driven hazard in the US,” says Kathy Baughman McLeod, senior vice president and director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, a nonprofit that works with cities around the world to fund climate-resilience solutions. It’s under the group’s Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance program that the mayors of Miami-Dade, Athens, Greece, and Freetown, Sierra Leone, agreed to appoint CHOs (the organization helps fund the position). Miami-Dade’s mayor, Daniella Levine Cava, was the first to announce the role. Jane Gilbert, who worked for many years on the city’s climate resilience initiatives, is the first person to hold a position of this kind in the world.

Cities are known as “urban heat islands,” meaning they’re significantly warmer than other settlements because of the way they’re constructed, with buildings and roads absorbing heat and then reemitting it. “We’re just roasting people in cities,” Baughman McLeod says. Many of Gilbert’s prospective initiatives are based around design. She mentions installing cool pavements and roofs by using materials that reflect sunlight to drive down temperatures, and enhancing shade along pavements with tree canopies so people can walk, bike, and wait at bus stops that will feel around -6 – 7 degrees cooler (which will also help encourage the use of public transportation instead of individually air-conditioned cars).

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